Grounding Fantasy in Reality Back to Blog

embers-250One of the tricky issues in writing urban fantasy is finding the appropriate balance between fantasy and reality. Urban fantasy, by definition, includes fantastical elements (including paranormal ideas or magic) in a mundane setting. Fantastic elements make a story interesting, and realistic elements make a story believable. Too much fantasy makes the magic less special, drowns it in a sea of fantastic characters and places. Too much realism makes the world too gritty or dull. But how much of each is too much?

Often, this takes a good deal of trial and error, depending upon the rules of the world. There are two types of general settings in urban fantasy: an open world in which the fantastic elements are known to all its inhabitants, and a hidden world in which the fantastic elements are unknown except to a select few.

Open worlds include worlds in which fantastic creatures roam the streets, have the right to vote, and are well-integrated into the fabric of society. An open world would be the kind of world in which my brother would bring a vampire home for dinner that he met on a paranormal dating site. I’d be glowering at his hickeys while I was spooning out the mashed potatoes. Open worlds allow for more elements of the fantastic, because they have become ordinary in that setting. People are accustomed to hair removal products for Weres being marketed on daytime television. The world is flexible and resilient, operating under a different set of rules than our own. The reader’s beliefs are effectively suspended at the outset, and the reader knows that anything is possible in this world – it’s wide open.

dark-oracle-450Hidden worlds require a lighter touch with the fantastic. Hidden worlds operate almost exactly the same as our own on the surface. It’s what’s beneath that’s cause for alarm. Too much magic roiling underneath the surface can make the fantastic elements seem less special and dull their impact. Too much magic can also strains the credibility of a secret world needs to remain secret. Ordinary humans may miss a few supernatural creatures or organizations operating in their midst, but ordinary people less likely to be able to ignore a zoo of things that go bump in the night living across the street.

The urban fantasy I write is primarily of the hidden world variety. In EMBERS, Anna Kalinczyk is an arson investigator by day. By night, she pursues malicious spirits with an eccentric team of ghost hunters and her fire salamander familiar. Anya must stop an attractive arsonist intent on summoning an ancient entity that will leave Detroit in cinders. She exists in a very real world, with a real day job, and most of her conflict and magical activities are hidden from her boss and the rest of the city, where it’s business as usual.

In DARK ORACLE, which I wrote as Alayna Williams, Tara Sheridan swore off criminal profiling after narrowly escaping a serial killer. By combining Tarot card divination with her own intuition, she must help an intense federal agent find a missing scientist who has unlocked the destructive secrets of dark energy. In Tara’s world, her power as an oracle using Tarot cards is concealed from her partner. To keep Tara’s powers in the spotlight, I limited the amount of additional magic in the book to the magic used by the other women in her sisterhood of oracles.

Each story is different, with a different focus on magic and the mundane. But the writer should keep in mind where the emphasis lies and keep experimenting with the ratios to craft a believable story that is also interesting and compelling.

-Laura Bickle

Laura Bickle has worked in the unholy trinity of politics, criminology, and technology for several years. She and her chief muse live in the Midwest, owned by four mostly-reformed feral cats. Her short fiction has appeared here and there. Embers, her debut novel, is first in an exciting new urban fantasy series that continues with her forthcoming second novel, Sparks. More information is at

Laura also writes as Alayna Williams. Alayna’s “debut” is Dark Oracle, Pocket Juno’s June 2010 release. More info on her work can be found at

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28 responses to “Grounding Fantasy in Reality”

  1. Valere says:

    I really enjoy urban fantasy and it looks like there are some more books to put on my ever growing wishlist…sigh!!!!

    in Germany

  2. Cynthia Eden says:

    Hi, Laura! Thanks so much for guest posting with me. Love your insight on urban fantasy!

  3. Jean P says:

    I enjoyed the post and reading about how you have to figure out how much fantasy and reality to put into the writing. Dark Oracle is going on my list to read.

  4. Edie says:

    I’m with Valere (which is a great name, btw). There are so many possibilities with UF. Fun to write and to read. Congrats on your release! I’m going to check it out.

  5. Ali says:

    Hi, Laura :)
    Great post… very good information, thanks :)

  6. Viki says:

    Until reading this post I never thought about the balance you have to strike with reality and fantasy. Thak you for making me aware.

  7. Thanks for the post. I really enjoyed reading Embers. I look forward to the next one.


  8. Colleen says:

    I enjoyed reading your post… DARK ORACLE has caught my attention… going to check out your website next… thanks for sharing!

  9. Ina says:

    Hi Laura!
    thanks for being here today – Embers is already on top of my wishlist, but I didn’t know that you are the author of Dark Oracle… I’ve def to check it out.
    greetings, Ina

  10. Raonaid Luckwell says:

    Just started Dark Oracle last night. After I finished Kresley Cole’s Pleasure of a Dark Prince I jumped immediately into Dark Oracle.

    Enjoying it so far (no electric today due to an accident so can’t read too much today). Can’t wait to pick up Embers.

    You are going to have a special place of honor on my shelf!

  11. Judy Cox says:

    I found this to be a very interesting post!! Your covers also caught my attention!!! I love them!!! I would pick both up in a book to read about the author and story!!
    Urban fantasy is one of my new favorites:)

  12. Tracey D says:

    I enjoyed the post and look forward in reading more of Laura/Alayna’s works.

  13. Jane says:

    I’m fairly new to urban fantasy, but have enjoyed the couple of books that I’ve read.

  14. Laura Bickle says:

    Thanks so much, folks! I’m thrilled that the post was useful and that so many of you have picked up EMBERS and DARK ORACLE.

    Thank you so much, Cynthia, for having me here today to guest blog. You’ve got a great group of followers, and I’m excited to have the chance to chat. :-)

  15. cories says:

    Really nicely put, Laura. Thank you.

  16. Andrea I says:

    I have seen good reviews about both of these books and they’re on my TBB list. Urban fantasy was a new genre for me last year and my TBR stack keeps increasing.

  17. Diane Sadler says:

    A new author to look for!

  18. Chelsea B. says:

    Great post!

  19. Laura Bickle says:

    I’m excited that I’m on your lists, Diane and Andrea I!

    cories, and Chelsea B., thanks! Urban fantasy is a difficult animal to define. But I think that it’s helpful to try and analyze what we’re up to, whenever possible. There are a lot of different flavors of UF, depending on how you classify it.

  20. Pam P says:

    Hi Laura, love UF, too, so many ways to go with it. I now have Embers in my TBR,and Dark Oracle is calling to me.

  21. Stacey Smith says:

    Look finding new authors to me.


  22. Sindy says:

    oh a new author for me :) can’t wait to read your books – they are both on my wishlist!

  23. Cynthia Eden says:

    Hi! :-) I’m posting for Virginia:

    Hi, Laura! Urban Fantasy is based on a harsher, darker world with escalated drama and violence. The heightened tension leads to more intense sensual situations. All of these elements combine for a knockout punch, but they have to handled just right to avoid overkill and remain readable. One feature of Urban Fantasy that really appeals to me is the natural evolution of strong, kick-booty female characters!

    –Virginia C.

  24. Sue Brandes says:

    Enjoyed your post. Can’t wait to read your books. I didn’t know you write The Dark Oracle either.

  25. Laura Bickle says:

    Thanks so much, folks!

    Yes, I have multiple personalities (just kidding!). EMBERS and DARK ORACLE were coming out so close together that my publisher decided that it would be less confusing to readers to do one series under another name.

    Good points, Virginia. Also…urban fantasy never guarantees a “happily ever after.” I like having that question unsettled and open when I’m writing.

  26. Rashda says:

    Great post! Wish I’d found it on the day off, but still enjoyed the read! :)

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